Sohail Daulatzai in conversation with Peter Mandaville

Peter Mandaville: We’re engaging with you in the context of a project we’ve been working on over the last couple of years called ‘The Muslim Atlantic’ in which we explore the intersection of questions of race, gender and securitisation within Muslim communities in North America and Europe. But, of course, you can’t talk about something like the Muslim Atlantic without recognising that the Atlantic in question is not only northern, but also southern. It includes the Caribbean, West Africa, and South America. The breadth of the geography in Lupe Fiasco’s song, ‘The Show Goes On’, really captures it for me.

And so I wanted to start by asking you what this concept of the Muslim Atlantic means to you? What does it invoke for you? How should we think about it in the context of a broader set of contemporary discussions of coloniality and decoloniality?

Sohail Daulatzai: It’s an excellent question and a really compelling frame to think through the kind of ideas, currents and forms of resistance that have trafficked across the world. I think it’s a really provocative frame that is clearly indebted to Paul Gilroy’s monumental and influential Black Atlantic. And it’s one of the things that I tried to address in my work because Gilroy’s Black Atlantic is clearly thinking about space and geography, pushing back against the concept of the nation-state as a kind of limiting space for thinking about redemptive Black possibility. Which I think is an incredibly edifying and astute point. But as I wrote about it in Black Star, Crescent Moon, Gilroy is in some ways reproducing the very problem that he sought to address by replacing one geography – the nation-state – with another one, the Black Atlantic. 

That said, I do think it’s still a very generative and productive way to think about the histories and enduring legacies of the so called New World and the violences that it has inaugurated, which are undeniable and, seemingly intractable. So for me, the Atlantic and the Black Atlantic in particular is a very redemptive kind of reclaiming. It provides a particular and productive space for thinking about that violence and the forms of resistance that were sought and mobilised against it.

But in thinking about Gilroy’s work and the kind of horrors that modernity inaugurated, I was wondering about how do we also think about Muslim or in particular Black Muslim longing or aspirations embodied in someone like Malcolm X, or so many others? And so I thought that it was important to provide a more robust account of what was happening within, across and beyond the Atlantic. And I felt like another way of thinking about these kinds of histories, circulations, and networks was to think about – and I think we’ll talk about it later – this notion of the Muslim International. 

So I do find the Muslim Atlantic very powerful, because I do think that when we think about the histories of the Africans who were enslaved, and the presence of Islam amongst the Africans who were enslaved, it’s very hard to ignore that centrality. And then also, when we think about the histories of migration, forced migration, exile, refugees, coming from parts of the Global South, from Muslim majority countries as a result of a whole set of forces, such as war, colonialism, and empire, you start to see a very rich and vibrant space potentially emerging. So I find it very compelling and enriching. But I would just want us to be attuned to the spaces that are imagined and conjured beyond the Atlantic that make these redemptive visions so resonant. 

PM: It’s been remarkable to me to observe the persistence and, maybe of late, even a resurgence of interest in the figure of Malcolm X. But it’s also hard not to notice that there seem to be so many Malcolms in the sense of different constituencies and ‘users’ – if we can put it that way –  of him and his legacy: many people finding in his life and his work varying trajectories and different forms of utility for their own positionality and their own activism and politics. I want to ask you to reflect on your understanding of how he is understood differently in the United States today, compared with Europe or North Africa.  What is at stake in thinking about and then recognising these differential uses of Malcolm—up to and including, as Hisham Aidi points out in his work, the fact that there are Western governments that have built counterterrorism/countering violent extremism programmes around a certain appropriation of the figure of Malcolm as someone who at some level embodies a ‘usable’ form of moderate Islam.

SD: I think it is a great question. And I think, if I’m going to be optimistic about thinking about these multiple uses of Malcolm or the multiple entry points that people have to try to think through Malcolm, what this reveals to me is that Malcolm was a complex figure who was addressing and trying to connect some very important and serious dots.

When we think about Malcolm there are so many ways that he is remembered: as a Pan-Africanist, a Muslim, a colour-blind universalist, a Black nationalist, a Civil Rights icon, some would even go so far and say a Marxist. So there are these differing and even contradictory ideas about Malcolm that circulate, so that for example, and I’m speaking in somewhat broad brushstrokes here, but Leftists tend to ignore that he was a devout Muslim. Or Muslims – and here I am speaking primarily about immigrant Muslims from what we call the Middle East or West Asia and South Asia – they tend to centre on Malcolm’s hajj and tend to see him as a colour-blind universalist and ignore how vigorously Malcolm continued to struggle against white supremacy even after hajj. Then there are Nationalists who tend to erase his Third World internationalism, or the way in which Malcolm is thought of as a Civil Rights hero even though he was vehemently opposed to Civil Rights as a framework for thinking about Black redress.

So Malcolm falls through the cracks in some ways, and I think it’s always important to re-centre him and to again, think about the kinds of dots he was trying to connect. Because I believe that the hermeneutical war that is ongoing around Malcolm is a genuine one, and that the aspiration to ‘claim’ Malcolm as it were, is because the violent forces that he was speaking out about are still very much alive today.  And in some ways, much of the Black Radical Tradition that he was not only a part of but that he also helped inaugurate, has been decimated. So I think this struggle over his meaning is a result of the urgent necessity of his thinking.

What’s hopeful or at least promising is that Malcolm left us with a robust, vibrant body of work  – meaning his speeches, his writings, and his diaries right? These are undeniable – so that any attempts to try and reframe him could be addressed if we engage Malcolm through deep study. And that’s something I tried to do in Black Star, Crescent Moon, which is essentially a book about Malcolm X and his enduring influence across politics, social movements, and the arts.

For me Malcolm is important because he laid bare the global nature of white supremacy, and he tied the domestic struggles around race and white supremacy to the anti-colonial struggles taking place around the Third World, imagining Black people in the US not as a national minority but as part of a global majority. And in doing that he strongly opposed the Civil Rights logic that tied Black peoples’ fate to the American project of empire, and the idea that America’s enemies were therefore Black people’s enemies. Instead Malcolm understood that a more robust reckoning with white supremacy had to be undertaken, a struggle that was global. As Malcolm would often quip, and I’m paraphrasing here, if you wanted to understand what was happening in Jim Crow Mississippi you would have to look at the Congo or Cairo or Palestine. Or in Malcolm’s words ‘what the police do locally the military does globally’. These are profoundly insightful claims and even theorisations about the nature of domination and the white supremacist glue that binds them. That is why for Malcolm the problem of Black suffering had to be internationalised and not nationalised or domesticated, because as he saw it, Black people getting a ‘piece of the pie’ here in the States was not only an illusion or an elusive quest, but even the attempt at it was going to perpetuate a racist global system and imperil if not eradicate anticolonial struggles for liberation through a tacit if not explicit support of US foreign policy and interventionism.  

And so I think Malcolm and his thinking has deep implications for today, especially in the ways that various Black and other non-white communities – Muslims included – either so readily identify with American-ness, or worse buy into its assumptions about the rest of the world and America’s role in that world.  Malcolm striped the veneer off of the narrative of American exceptionalism that saw the US as distinct from Europe and not part of that legacy of empire. Instead, for Malcolm, US global hegemony was and is violently complicit with the histories of European colonialism, and that is why I place him in the pantheon of other radical internationalists such as DuBois, Robeson, Claudia Jones, Fanon, Lamumba and others. And I think Malcolm, like these others, sounded the alarm and provided dire warnings that unfortunately too many of us have not heeded to this day.

And that he did this as a believer? As a practicing Muslim? That is deeply inspiring and profound in its implications – because to me his life was a shining example of how the Qur’an could be made a living reality and Islam the religion of justice that it is.

PM: This was very much reflected to me in a long conversation I had with Imam Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid, from The Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem. I had asked him about the various groups that come through there all the time on something like ‘Malcolm pilgrimages’: people wanting to be in places he was and to walk the streets that he walked. And Imam Talib related to me a version of exactly what you just laid out. Some who come looking for Malcolm don’t want him to be black, others don’t want him to be Muslim, while still others need Malcolm to be very American and less international in his orientation. And Imam Talib just shook his head as he said to me, ‘I don’t really know what to tell them, because whatever it is they’re looking for, Malcolm either wasn’t that or he was so much more than that’.

SD: Absolutely. And I think part of those blind spots have to do with how we think about what a kind of radical politics could look like. And so then it’s very difficult for people to think about a particular kind of radical politics coming from a Muslim. Right? But there are then folks who want to strip that away from him, and make him a kind of a humanist, a universalist figure. 

Malcolm wasn’t a universalist. I mean, this is the kind of claim that many Muslims seek to make: that Malcolm had a universalist vision, right? I’m arguing that Malcolm was an internationalist, which, to me is something fundamentally different. But I think what calling Malcolm a universalist hinges on is this inability to see a radical political framework emanating from somebody who identifies as Muslim, which then deracialises not only Malcolm and the Black Radical Tradition he is central to, but it also ignores how white supremacy deeply structures an unequal global order. I think to me in some ways, there’s something there that I’m always interested in exploring: what are the kinds of blind spots that different constituencies have – Muslims included – to thinking about radical politics, coming from somebody who closely identifies with Islam or being Muslim?

PM: We think and talk these days a lot about the emergence of something like a post-Western world order. How in that context should we think about the significance and future of what you so evocatively term the Muslim International? What does that mean going forward? What sorts of possibilities are present in it?

SD: I think it is important to mention that on the question of a post-Western world order, I remember as we entered the twenty-first century many people were talking about the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – as a kind of counterweight to US power. And if we think about those countries today look at where Brazil is now with Bolsonaro, Russia with Putin, India with Modi, and China with its own forms of authoritarianism. But at least four of those five BRICS countries that were supposed to be this counterweight to US power or Western power, have become either completely complicit with it or deepening and replicating forms of violence. And so, when I think about what a post-Western order is or is not, I wonder if it will still be structured by a kind of Westphalian system and forms of governance that has at its foundations the idea of racial capitalism? And is the nation-state still the predominant form for thinking about collectivity and redress? 

And I ask these questions because if a post-Western world is to exist, then I wonder what it would look like, because if it is one that is still structured by racial capitalism will a non-Western entity or force or set of forces continue to carry on the traditions of an international order structured by dominance and unequal relations between regions and countries? And if so, who is dominating? And who will continue to be dominated?

PM: All of the evidence we have to date suggests the answer to those questions are: Yes. That is precisely because the countries that were supposedly the emerging alternative poles are themselves some of the greatest and enthusiastic underwriters of precisely those racialised politics. Take for instance contemporary China as an example of mass internment or annihilation of Muslims at the hands of a state.

SD: Right. As I tell my students, the West is not a geographic or spatial designation. There is nothing that Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, or Israel have in common spatially – they are not in the ‘West’ in any way. And so the West is instead an ideological and dare I say, a racial designation – a frame for thinking about the centrality of white supremacy to liberalism, modernity, democracy and rights. So, if a post-Western world is only going to replicate or even deepen those violent forces but with a ‘non-Western’ face, a kind of ventriloquism for whiteness, then I am not sure we’re in a fundamentally different place. In fact, an argument could be made that it’s worse, as we are only masking who or what our real enemy is. 

And so that is why for me the Muslim International became something productive to gesture toward and to imagine as an alternative to a Western world order. As I talked about in Black Star, Crescent Moon, I was thinking about how through the kind of convergence of Black radical thought in the US, struggles for decolonisation and the Muslim Third World, that particular worlds, and even worldviews, were being shaped by this convergence, so that the Muslim International for me was and is a space for worldmaking where the possibilities of other imaginings and redemptive visions could be conjured.

And so in looking to think through and against the legacies of European colonialism and empire, as well as the emergent Leviathan of US empire with its own settler logics and legacies of slavery, what I was trying to do with the Muslim International was to one, name something that already existed, and two, to name something that was yet to come. So that it was both a horizon of possibility and also an imagining of a kind of futurity.

For me, the Muslim International was about forging alternative epistemologies and orientations that were markedly different from the Western liberal humanist order. And this just didn’t mean only in the traditional realm of politics, but also in the realm of the political – so that it encompasses both state and non-state actors, artists, filmmakers, writers, intellectuals, exiles, refugees, and movement builders who could then deploy these alternative epistemes within the political and aesthetic realms to create new forms of sociality and a radically different world order.

Interestingly, I remember doing a talk at Columbia University and a scholar whose work I deeply admire asked what to me was a profound yet simple question: what is the purpose of naming this? And it struck me more for what it revealed. Because to me the urgent necessity of naming the Muslim International came from the inability of the world to think or even fathom the possibility that Muslims could resist, challenge and create in profound and powerful ways that were not always already dismissed because these insurgent practices didn’t conform to or adhere to what is already proscribed and circumscribed by what it is thought that Muslims do. In other words, there are a whole host of ways that forms of resistance, creativity and militancy by Muslims are rendered illegible and even erased because it is assumed that Muslims can only protest in this way or that way. Now of course this is a deeply problematic and anti-Muslim way of thinking. And I’m not necessarily ascribing it to this scholar who asked the question, but this thinking is fairly commonplace on both the Right and the Left, and so I felt the need to give these ideas and imaginings some coherence without formalising them in a narrow way that would reproduce the very problem I set out to address. Because for me the Muslim International is not a monolithic space, and is instead a space of radical difference, multiplicity and even contestation over the question of liberation and emancipation. And it is important for it to remain a dissident and insurgent space that encourages transgression and that foments forms of sabotage – aesthetically, politically and otherwise. 

PM: So is it your sense that the generative possibilities of the Muslim International have been foreclosed by the present configuration of global power, neoliberal economics and the racialised settler practices that are so intrinsically wrapped up with them? I should add that I ask this from the perspective of someone who views global neoliberal power as something that is not simply Western in the sense of being confined to (or originating exclusively in) something called Europe and North America or Australia but something – à la Hardt & Negri – that is increasingly planetary in scope. So is the possibility of something different as expressed by the Muslim International foreclosed now? Or do you still have some sense that perhaps through formations yet to come the Muslim International might continue to have that emancipatory potential within it?

SD: Yes, I absolutely do believe that. I clearly think that not just Muslims, there is a whole host of people who, across the world, particularly in what we can call the Global South, and various communities in the United States and in Europe who are under rabid assault. But if we are going to talk about the Muslim International, I do think that it is under attack: the artists, the movements, the organisers, the writers, the intellectuals, even the very idea of it is being violently assaulted.  And so there is and has been a definite assault upon where we are positioned. And we are not the only ones. But despite being under duress, I still believe that there are spaces. And I know that folks are still actively thinking about and trying to imagine other possible futures beyond the current reality. So I’m very hopeful about it. Because that is what the Muslim International rests upon is a kind of utopic possibility. 

When I wrote Black Star, Crescent Moon, my editor at the University of Minnesota Press said ‘wow, your book really ends on a depressing note.’ Because you know, I end with a chapter on the incarceration of Imam Jamil Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown). And I talked about how, especially in the last two chapters with Muhammad Ali and him, the way in which the Muslim International was in the crosshairs of the US security state. But to the extent that the Muslim International resonates with you, Peter, if I could ask you that question  … How do you feel about what possibilities exist?

PM: Well, one of the few hopeful things happening around me in the United States as a result of what our country is living through right now is to see elements of engagement and partnership and solidarity start to emerge between groups who under previous political configurations and framings, were not able to find common cause, but should have been natural allies for a long time. And so, when you start to see certain kinds of conversations happening between, for example, supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, and, say, immigrant Muslim Americans – in other words groups not previously engaged with each other and to some extent even pitted against each other – then that is where I start to have a little bit of hope. 

And so let’s think about that on a on a global scale, let’s think about that kind of subaltern solidarity as a form of internationalism. And it makes sense to talk about it in terms of the Muslim International if we want to explore one particular expression of a way of thinking about how particular experiences of racism and violence get transformed into an emancipatory project. In other words there’s going to be a certain specificity to what that has looked like for Muslims, and Muslims of diverse backgrounds, different geographies, and varying cultures. But this is why I think your framing of the Muslim International for us in the book is so powerful: you ground it in the particularity of Muslim experience, but it’s not exclusivist in its orientation. It is something capable of seeing itself in the specificity of other kinds of injustices and wants to engage with and work alongside those. And so the more I see Muslim activists and thinkers getting out of their communalist, sectarian, or madhabi bubbles and saying, ‘my struggle is your struggle,’ that is where I continue to have some hope. 

SD: Absolutely. I mean, that is key to how I described the Muslim International, a space of overlapping diasporas and intertwined histories where solidarity is not a given but is something that is built. And so to go back to your previous question about where we can see the Muslim International now, I think there are various examples of it. For me it’s embodied in the Black, Arab and Desi Muslims involved in the Black Lives Matter Movements, and also the Ferguson-Gaza solidarities around the killing of Michael Brown, which were part of a longer history of Black-Palestinian Solidarity that dates back to Malcolm X, SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and the Black Panther Party. I also see it in the Muslims who were part of the Standing Rock Sioux protests against settler-colonialism here in the United States. And also in the work of numerous activists against the institutionalisation of CVE  (Countering-Violent Extremism) programmes and the military-police nexus within Muslim communities, as they fought against racist programmes that has not only furthered the surveillance of Muslim communities, but has also deepened police powers against non-Muslim Black and Brown communities here in Los Angeles and throughout the country.  

In terms of artists, I saw it in the powerful video of Yasiin Bey who underwent the force feeding procedures at Guantanamo Bay that was timed with the first day of Ramadan and the hunger strikes of prisoners here in the States at Pelican Bay and other prisons. And I remember talking to him about it and the timing of it which brought together these multiple and intertwined histories and communities around the world. I also see it in the brilliant work of the artist Bouchra Khalili, the UK-based rapper Lowkey, and also in the comedy of Aamer Rahman. 

I think there are so many examples that we can point to such as these that are not about a transactional solidarity, but rather a transformative solidarity that deepens our understanding of the brutal forces that we face and the connections between them. Because in thinking about the Muslim International as a set of emancipatory practices of worldmaking, it’s important to recognise that these more contemporary examples that I’m pointing out have deep historic roots in both the political and artistic battles that were waged by artists and activists for decades, if not centuries. And it’s not that these contemporary artists and activists are simply influenced by those in the past, it’s that the forms of violence and the conditions of suffering that they are now trying to address also have deep historic roots in slavery and empire that have been perpetuated, reproduced and normalised.

So I think pointing out these examples is vital because they compel us to think historically and to act on a world that refuses to see them as such. Not that they are doing it for recognition. Not at all. In fact they are engaged in this work as acts of refusal. But it does point to the urgent need to do a kind of work of historical recovery, which is something I continue to be deeply invested in.  In fact, I’m currently exploring what I’m calling the ‘ghost archive’ of the Muslim International through other mediums such as film, video, and other experimental forms. And I’m really interested in how, for example, do instances of potentially radical formations and utopic possibilities continue to haunt the current moment. And how do they become useful for animating the kinds of struggles that we need to have today? How do they become at least windows into thinking about alternative possibilities and utopian futures? 

I think these are important questions because I think the question around emancipatory politics and Muslim agency – and the forms that such agency can or cannot take – continues to loom large because there is an assumption that ‘the Left’ is something that is antagonistic to Muslims, or vice versa. Or even more troubling, that Muslims cannot be involved in a truly liberatory politics. Both of these assumptions are deeply disturbing in their own right. And so then it’s just easier to set up the ‘straw man’ of a reactionary Islam and the bogey-man Muslim against which to define supposedly genuine Left or radical politics. For me the Muslim International is not only part of and also parallel to the various attempts of the Third World project and the Black Radical Tradition (in particular in the post-World War II era), but it also helped to give shape to these, whether it was at Bandung, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Tricontinental or any of its other formations. 

And so I think this historical presence has to be reckoned with, for it has profound implications for what we think of radical politics and justice today. Because if we are going to continue to excise – or exorcise – Muslims from those histories and see Muslims as antithetical or even antagonistic to emancipatory politics, then we will replicate those very same problematic notions in our current political projects and movements, while also playing into the very logic of anti-Muslim racism and the ‘Long War on Terror’ that sees Muslims as a problem for politics, as a threat to justice  (however that is defined), and therefore as an enemy that must be vanquished.

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: